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The eastern section of Hawaii’s Big Island continues to attract home buyers searching for a cheap piece of paradise

Mon, Jan 22, 2024 4:15pmGrey Clock 5 min

PUNA, Hawaii—In 2018, a large volcanic eruption spewed lava, rock and ash into the middle of a subdivision here, gobbling up more than 700 homes and displacing thousands of residents in a slow-motion disaster. Today, it is Hawaii’s fastest-growing region.

Land in an active lava zone, it turns out, is relatively cheap. Lured by a shot at attainable homeownership in paradise, island dwellers and mainland transplants alike have been flocking to this area in the shadow of Kilauea, driving up prices in the Puna District. Still, the area remains one of the last affordable refuges on the cheapest island in Hawaii, America’s most expensive state.

“In terms of the last bastion of affordability, Puna is it,” said Jared C. Gates, a Realtor who was raised on Oahu and came to the Big Island for college in the 1990s. He purchased his first home in 2005, a modest fixer-upper in Puna, on his salary as a waiter.

Over the past few years, he has been getting more business in Leilani Estates, the neighborhood where the 2018 eruption began.

None of the homes that were inundated by lava have been rebuilt. Many homeowners have sold their properties to Neighbours or the county in a federally funded buyback program, but that land remains vacant for now. The land has been so transformed that it is hard for remaining owners to know even where their property begins and ends.

“It took out roughly a third of the subdivision; totally surreal,” Gates said last fall. “And houses are selling there again.”

Among Gates’s listings that day was a three-bedroom, two-bath home with lush landscaping, two blocks from the mile-wide lava field where heat and steam still radiate from vents in the petrified landscape. “It’s a beaut,” he said. “It will sell.”

Three weeks later it did, for $325,000, cash.

The story of how serene-looking slices of suburbia came to inhabit an active volcanic rift zone is well-known here. In the 1960s, land speculators—aided by a new county government hungry for tax revenue—bought thousands of acres and carved it into lots of an acre or more that were snapped up by investors.

There were virtually no requirements that developers pave roads, place utility lines or build other essential infrastructure. To this day, there is no wastewater treatment plant or hospital. Many of the district’s 51,000 residents rely on filtered rainwater and cesspools to dispose of sewage.

Early buyers included Native Hawaiians looking for an affordable place to call home and mainland hippies intent on off-grid living. As home prices rose in Hawaii and across the nation, however, more working families and mainland retirees went hunting for deals on the Big Island.

County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who represents Puna, said rush-hour traffic on the rural, two-lane highway that connects Puna to Hilo, the county seat roughly 20 miles away, is so bad that she leaves her home 1.5 hours early to get to work.

County officials say rules tied to federal funding bar local government from building affordable housing in lava zones 1 and 2, which are the riskiest and make up most of lower Puna. State law also prohibits them from spending most local money on private subdivisions, meaning that roads are largely maintained by owner associations.

Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said that while the county has added a new firehouse, police station and park facilities there in recent years, the county has limited funds to make major investments in high-risk areas.

“Are we going to invest public money in a high-risk place…knowing that whatever you build could be taken out by lava at any time?” said Roth.

The lack of some modern conveniences has scarcely slowed the flow of newcomers.

Like many places in the U.S., an influx of remote workers during the pandemic has helped send the housing market here into overdrive.

Among the recent arrivals are David Booth and his partner, Juan Polanco. The former Phoenix residents had been brainstorming tropical locations where they could slash their living expenses and ease into retirement.

“The attraction to the Big Island was affordability,” said Booth, 61, who now works remotely. He and Polanco, 59, paid cash for a 1,500-square-foot home that had been split into three units with separate entrances. “You can’t have this on any other island for this price point.”

The property sits on a 1-acre lot in Hawaiian Paradise Park, a subdivision located in the less-risky lava zone 3. Homes with repeated sales in the neighborhood have seen a nearly 800% appreciation in price since 2000, according to data from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

Properties in lava zones 1 and 2—some with sweeping oceanfront views—were far cheaper, Booth said. In the end, the risk of losing their nest egg to a natural disaster, and the difference in insurance rates, were deal breakers.

They are getting used to bringing in their drinking water and dealing with vicious fire ants. The slow-paced lifestyle and prospect of early retirement are worth it, he said.

They have listed the two other units as vacation rentals, and their first guests arrive next week.

“We are overwhelmed with the amount of beauty here and just how much more relaxed we feel,” said Booth. “We’re building a whole new life here.”

Three years ago, Travis Edwards, 48, was driving delivery trucks and living with his mother in Southern California’s Inland Empire.

He was sick of the traffic, wildfires and car thefts, he said. Upon retiring, his mother sold her house and paid cash for a 1-acre lot with two units in Leilani Estates, surrounded by avocado and citrus trees. Lava insurance rates in lava zone 1, the riskiest area that encompasses the entire subdivision, were so high that they simply stopped paying for it, he said.

He mostly shrugs off the dangers, reasoning that they would be reckoning with fires and earthquakes on top of a lower quality of life back in Southern California.

“It’s just paradise,” said Edwards, who now drives limousines part-time. “The rest of the world doesn’t exist when you’re here.”

Rising prices on the east side have left Puna native Chantel Takabayashi feeling stuck. A single mother of three, she works 16 hours a day as a state prison guard in Hilo. She would like to buy a home closer to work and better schools but has been priced out of most neighborhoods she has considered.

“I make pretty decent money and I work long, endless hours, and I still can’t afford better housing,” she said.

A home in the Kalapana Gardens neighborhood.

Liz Fusco, who manages more than 100 rental properties for Hilo Bay Realty in Pahoa, said that during the pandemic, she saw three-bedroom homes in parts of Puna that once fetched $1,500 a month rent for as much as $2,300.

Most of the applicants were mainlanders, she said, with stellar rental histories, plenty of income and pristine credit. Units that would typically take more than a month to rent were getting leased in three days.

Tina Garber, who has lived in the Puna area for 21 years, has been displaced twice in the past 18 months after the homes she was renting went up for sale.

Currently, she is paying $750 a month—three-quarters of her monthly income as a housecleaner—for a 400-square-foot studio surrounded on three sides by cooled lava. Her landlord just told her it will be listed for sale in April.

“People that come over here with money, they do not realize that it is so hard to make it here,” Garber said. “They think, ‘Oh, a good deal in Hawaii.’ But it puts a lot of pain and suffering on local folks.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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UAE Initiates State-Owned EV Charging Initiative to Boost Electric Vehicle Acceptance

The United Arab Emirates is improving its electric vehicle infrastructure with a new government-owned EV charging network.

Wed, May 22, 2024 2 min

The UAE Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure (MoEI) alongside Etihad Water and Electricity (Etihad WE) have collaborated to form UAEV, a new joint venture aimed at strengthening the electric vehicle (EV) charging framework throughout the UAE. This venture is the first EV charging network entirely owned by the government, aimed at broadening access to EV charging facilities across the country.

The project seeks to revolutionize the UAE’s transport sector by enabling broader adoption of EVs via a robust and widespread charging infrastructure. This initiative is expected to strengthen communities, generate employment, and promote eco-friendly transportation options.

Suhail bin Mohammed Al Mazrouei, Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, said: “UAEV embodies the power of partnership between government and industry, and aims to provide vital electric vehicle infrastructure to boost adoption of EVs, energize communities, and unleash the economic potential of the UAE.

“We hope that this partnership will further accelerate the transition to cleaner transportation and significantly reduce emissions from the transportation sector, thereby helping to bring our Net Zero 2050 Strategy within reach.”

Sharif Al Olama, who has been appointed Chairman of UAEV, said: “In 2023, we saw a rise in EV adoption in the UAE. By expanding our EV infrastructure, we ensure the country is equipped to support those who have already purchased an EV and make the prospect of switching to EV attractive.

“Together, MoEI and Etihad WE form a powerful force that can help future-proof the UAE and achieve the twin objectives of economic growth and climate action, which underpin UAEV.”

The UAEV is also a perfect platform for Etihad WE, the largest employer in the Northern Emirates and a company with a customer base of over 2 million households, to use its core competency and enhance its product offering.

Yousif Ahmed Al Ali, CEO of Etihad Water and Electricity and Board Member of UAEV, explained: “It is part of a deliberate strategy to diversify our operations, using the knowledge and experience acquired from our role as long-standing pioneers in the energy sector, to explore new products, services, projects, and investments which will benefit our customers.

“UAEV charging infrastructure will contribute to the modernization of the UAE’s transport network, help energize communities by creating new jobs, and empower our customers to make more sustainable choices.”



Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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